Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Damien Hirst: The Complete Spot Paintings 1986 -2011 at the Gagosian Gallery

Phe-Tyr, 2004–11
Whilst Damien Hirst may have achieved worldwide fame, and some notoriety, with his sliced and diced animals pickled in formaldehyde, the British artist's current show at the Gagosian Gallery in Rome is a decidedly less gruesome affair. The Complete Spot Paintings are exactly as the title implies – precise grids of different coloured discs of household gloss enamel painted onto white or off-white canvases – and some of them are really rather beautiful. Not that Hirst's works can't be beautiful - his controversial butterfly collages with their dazzling, kaleidoscopic colours are stunning, but the thought of the artist – or presumably his numerous assistants – systematically pulling the wings off thousands of exotic butterflies to create them, inevitably makes viewing these, and other works, disturbing.

Damien Hirst is one of the few post-Warhol artists to have truly become a global brand and as if to emphasise this point the 300 or so paintings in this show are spread across all of the Gagosian’s eleven locations in New York, London, Paris, Los Angeles, Athens, Geneva, and Hong Kong, with seventeen pieces on display in Rome. Similarly to Warhol, Hirst has only ever painted a handful of Spot Paintings himself and instead employs studio assistants to execute the works – the assistants even choose the colours. Perhaps it is the diversity of hands and very individual colour choices behind the the creation of these works that brings such variety to this exhibition – some colours positively vibrate and keep the viewer gazing at the canvas long and hard, whilst other compositions appeal less and barely earn more than a glance. Even the steadiness of the outlines and the precision of each dot might vary from canvas to canvas to create subtle, yet fundamental differences that render each piece unique, and very human, in spite of their initial machine-made impact.

Many of the paintings are titled after pharmaceutical drugs and some ways one is reminded of the multi-coloured pills used in Hirst's medicine cabinet installations, such as Lullaby Spring which contained 6,136 individually painted pills (and which sold for a record-breaking £9.65 million at Sotheby's in London a few years back). Maybe, the bad boy of British art has been a colourist all along...
I was always a colorist, I’ve always had a phenomenal love of color… I mean, I just move color around on its own. So that’s where the spot paintings came from—to create that structure to do those colors, and do nothing. I suddenly got what I wanted. It was just a way of pinning down the joy of color.
Damien Hirst

Damien Hirst: The Complete Spot Paintings 1986 -2011 continues at the Gagosian Gallery at Via Francesco Crispi, 16 until 10 March, 2012. Worth a visit!

Image © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2011 (Web-resolution, fair use)

Monday, January 23, 2012

Mondrian: Perfect Harmony at the Complesso del Vittoriano

Mondrian: Perfect Harmony at the Complesso del Vittoriano
Composition No. 12 with Blue © Mondrian/Holtzman Trust
One of the best places in the world to view the work of Piet Mondrian is undoubtedly the Gemeentemuseum in the Hague, where Dutch architect Hendrik Petrus Berlage created a Municipal Art Gallery designed to fully exploit natural light wherever possible. When I visited the museum as an art student over twenty years ago, the dazzling colours and light in Mondrian's early landscape paintings had an enormous and lasting impact on me – these works were sheer perfection. I was genuinely excited, therefore, when I discovered that the current Mondrian exhibition at the Complesso del Vittoriano in Rome would consist almost entirely of works on loan from the Gemeentemuseum's vast collection of works by the Dutch painter.

Mondrian's primary coloured Neo-plastic paintings are truly iconic and instantly recognisable the world over. They are represented at the close of this retrospective by a handful of paintings in the final room, and include the Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray and Blue (1921) used in the poster campaign across the city, as well as Composition No. 12 with Blue (started in Paris in 1936 and completed after his move to New York in 1942), on loan from the National Gallery of Canada. As familiar as these paintings may be, no reproduction can ever quite match the thrill of the encounter with real paint on canvas – the dynamism of Composition No. 12, with its flickering optical effects, kept me transfixed.

Study for Five Trees along the Gein with Moon (1907)
© Mondrian/Holtzman Trust
Perhaps the greatest achievement of this exhibition, however, is in the way it traces the logical progression of Mondrian's artistic journey from his origins as a painter of Dutch impressionist landscape paintings in the style of the Hague School, through the various artistic movements of the twentieth century, until the influence of cubism set him on the path towards first, De Stijl and eventually, total abstraction. Symbolism, luminism, pointillism, and the vivid colors of fauvism, all played a part, as did his interest in theosophy, and it is these earlier paintings and varied styles which will surely surprise and delight any visitor with only a passing knowledge of the artist.

The Red Cloud © Mondrian/Holtzman Trust
Whilst Mondrian would eventually pare down his artistic vision into vertical and horizontal lines and blocks of saturated primaries, this tendency can also be seen in his charcoal studies of trees, which are well represented in this show, and in the architectural forms such as the lighthouses, windmills and churches that break the flat Dutch landscape, or even gorgeous splashes of colour such as a solitary salmon-coloured cloud in an azure sky in The Red Cloud (1907).

The awkward spacial layout and lack of natural lighting at the Vittoriano make this exhibition space less than ideal for showcasing the shimmering beauty of Mondrian's early landscapes, but this is nevertheless, a must-see show and an excellent introduction to the artist's entire oeuvre.

Mondrian: Perfect Harmony continues at the Complesso del Vittoriano until 29th January, 2012.

Copyright on paintings in this post as indicated (web-resolution, fair use rationale).

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